Mass exodus from Puerto Rico feared after hurricane and debt crisis

CAROLINA, Puerto Rico — Inside the steamy San Juan airport, mothers sleep on the floor with their children. Travelers, many of whom have been there for days, fan themselves as they wait for a flight out.

The lines are long and there is no air conditioning, but after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans are eager to just get out — and the island's governor fears many will not return.

Related: Lawmakers Press White House to Step Up Aid to Puerto Rico

"My expectation is to rebuild stronger than ever," Gov. Ricardo Rossello told NBC News. "But clearly if this is not taken seriously ... Puerto Rico is going to collapse into a humanitarian crisis."

Saddled with a ballooning debt crisis, Puerto Rico has already seen a historic migration of about half a million people from the island in the past 10 years. Now, following the most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. territory in decades, the outflow is sure to hasten.

RELATED: Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico

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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Irma Maldanado stands with Sussury her parrot and her dog in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A car is viewed stuck in a flooded street in Santurce, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico braced for potentially calamitous flash flooding on Thursday after being pummeled by Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and knocked out the entire electricity grid. The hurricane, which Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called 'the most devastating storm in a century,' had battered the island of 3.4 million people after roaring ashore early Wednesday with deadly winds and heavy rain. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Fishing boats with severe damage at Club Nautico in the San Juan Bay. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Men walk past damaged homes after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017. Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on, cutting power on most of the US territory as terrified residents hunkered down in the face of the island's worst storm in living memory. After leaving a deadly trail of destruction on a string of smaller Caribbean islands, Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico's southeast coast around daybreak, packing winds of around 150mph (240kph). / AFP PHOTO / Hector RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: A local shop sustained damages after Hurricane Maria at Ponce de Leon Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A man looks for valuables in the damaged house of a relative after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man walks close to damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Agapito Lopez looks at the damage in his house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
TOPSHOT - A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 24, 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Maria. Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed on September 23, 2017 to evacuate people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment after the window was blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment with the window blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area last week on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An aerial photo shows damage caused by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. REUTERS/DroneBase
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"People were leaving in search of better economic opportunities. Now people are leaving because of a humanitarian crisis," said Teresita Levy, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at Lehman College in the Bronx. "They’re trying to get out because they are worried about not having enough food and supplies, services not being restored. What happens if you have a medical emergency and the hospital doesn’t have a generator?"

For many Puerto Ricans, there is no alternative but to leave for the mainland: Gas is scarce, there's no running water, and only about 5 percent of the island has had power restored.

"If anybody was thinking of coming [to the mainland United States], they are probably now coming anyway," Levy said.

Related: Puerto Ricans Plead for More Federal Aid to Devastated Island

Rossello has pleaded for more aid, and warns of a mass exodus if his island doesn't get help from the federal government, which is also still contending with the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the Southeast.

"There needs to be unprecedented relief for Puerto Rico so that we can start the immediate effort right now with the deployment of resources, but also the mid- to long-run recovery," he said. "If we have that, we can avoid a humanitarian crisis in the United States. But if we don’t have that, you will see thousands, if not millions, of Puerto Ricans flocking to the United States."

Experts say major hurricanes often cause a mass migration, particularly among those in a higher socioeconomic status.

Related: Trump to Visit Puerto Rico Next Week

Tatyana Deryugina, a professor of finance at the University of Illinois who studies the economic impact of disasters, tracked Hurricane Katrina evacuees for years after the Category 5 storm ravaged New Orleans.

She said her research indicates that about a third more people left New Orleans than would have otherwise, and only half of them came back in the eight years after the storm.

RELATED: Puerto Rico in darkness after Hurricane Maria

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Puerto Rico in darkness
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Puerto Rico in darkness
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: San Juan is seen during a blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017 in Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 23: Jaime Degraff sits outside as he tries to stay cool as people wait for the damaged electrical grid to be fixed after Hurricane Maria passed through the area on September 23, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A police car patrols a dark street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico battled dangerous floods Friday after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called Maria the most devastating storm in a century after it destroyed the US territory's electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan Puerto Rico, late on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico has been battling dangerous floods after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A police car patrols a road as Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico in Fajardo, on September 20, 2017. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: Buildings are completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: San Juan is seen during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm on September 20, 2017 San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely impacted. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has announced a curfew, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., effective Wednesday through Saturday. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Satellite night images of #PuertoRico. #HurricaneMaria knocked out power grid, millions without electricity. More @… https://t.co/YACDm1nDtE
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: A building is dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: The Miramar neighborhood is completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: Buildings in San Juan are completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
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"Obviously a big difference with Puerto Rico is it's an island," she said. "As far as I can tell, there's no place within Puerto Rico that’s really better, so if you want to leave, probably you're going to just leave the island entirely."

And the type of people who leave will affect Puerto Rico's recovery efforts and its essential services, she added.

"I think we're going to see more advantaged people leaving, the people who have an easier time buying airfare or a boat ticket — which could be, unfortunately, some of the wealthier individuals, like doctors," she said.

Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he had yet to see evidence of a mass migration in Puerto Rico, and said FEMA was treating Puerto Rico "just like any other state."

"We need you to know that we are working our butts off to help the people of Puerto Rico," Long said on MSNBC.

For some, though, that's not enough.

Luis Romero is one of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have already fled since the hurricane hit. He and his wife left their San Juan home for refuge near Sarasota, Florida, and they're considering making the move permanent.

"People are not going to wait for long," he said. "They are going to start flying over here in droves."

If that happens, Rossello says, "it would devastate our revenues. It would be a brain drain, most likely."

The experts say there are ways to negate that. Congress could allocate money specifically for rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico, which would attract construction companies and developers, said Deryugina, the finance professor.

Lawmakers could also allow a suspension of Puerto Rico's Promesa debt payments, Levy suggested, referring to the federal law that restructured the island's debt.

"It’s not people leaving that will be the issue, but it’s really, do you have the resources you need to fix what was damaged by the hurricane?" she said. "A year-long or longer suspension of the Promesa debt payments would mean there is money to invest in the infrastructure, schools, to make sure the hospitals are maintained."

Gabe Gutierrez reported from Carolina, Puerto Rico. Elizabeth Chuck reported from New York.

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